Rebecca Solnit

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The Faraway Nearby

Solnit, Rebecca

Last Updated: Aug-09-2019
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)


Solnit dares the reader to categorize her book. Autobiography, memoir, travelogue, story collection, history, meditations, and pathography could fit. Common to all the categories and subjects covered is storytelling. “It’s all in the telling… and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of the world,” Solnit says in book’s opening. Storytelling can bring what is geographically faraway emotionally nearby.  

Solnit’s first and last stories lay the foundation for the others in between. Both center on the hundred pounds of apricots she received from one of her brothers who was getting their mother’s house ready for sale when dementia made it impossible for her to live alone. Solnit saw “the apricots as an exhortation to tell of the time that began with their arrival, and so the stories concern the time from when they arrived onward” (p. 240). Solnit considers this time when her mother’s dementia is worsening, an “emergency,” but in this instance, she conceives emergency as “an accelerated phase of life, a point at which change is begotten, a little like a crisis” (p. 250). The book to her, she says, is “a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then” (p. 249). 

The topics covered during this emergency are many and varied, related and unrelated. Just some of them are: her mother’s dementia, her cancer, her friend’s cancer, leprosy, Che Guevara as physician and revolutionary, Iceland, the Arctic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Buddhism, and cannibalism. In general terms, illness, pain, empathy, fairytales, and reading and writing are considered. Some of these topics are intertwined and some stand alone. 

The book is organized into thirteen numbered “stories.” Each has a one-word title. The titles of the first five stories are the same as the last five in reverse order, i.e., the first and last stories are both called “Apricots.” They are arranged on the table of contents page to form the shape of a bell curve that has been rotated 90 degrees with the apex of the rotated curve comprising the stories, “Wound,” Knot,” and “Unwound.” Threads run through the stories, and perhaps Solnit is telling us the story threads running through the first six stories are wound into a knot and then unwound in stories running through the last six of them. This structure may be more grist for people interested in how literature can be structured than for people interested in the insights into illness experiences literary nonfiction can provide.  

Not among the list of stories is one that is printed as a single line running along the bottom of each page in the book. It’s a story is about stories running along side the other stories. In an interview printed in the 8 August 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Solnit said she used this form in part to 
invite“readers to decide how to read a book that has two narratives running parallel to each other; the thread can be read before, during, or after.” 

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